Viking women


Nancy Marie Brown in Song of the Vikings says that “Marriage in Iceland had long been business transactions, arranged by the couple’s families….The bride’s family supplied a dowry, the groom’s family a bride-price of land, livestock, and other goods that the couple would jointly own while their marriage lasted. The fathers then shook hands on the deal. It was the same way they sold a plot of land or an ocean-going ship or transferred a chieftaincy. The bride didn’t even need to be present—much less agree to the deal. Nor was the groom expected to be monogamous.”

After all, the gods were not monogamous. They had children with many different women. The myths of the gods provided a model for the behaviour of Icelandic men.

So much for the depiction I’ve heard of Icelandic women in saga times being independent, swashbuckling, Amazon types standing on the prow of their long ship, leading their followers into battle. Good romance novel stuff, Disney stuff, comic book stuff, but not much connected to reality.

There are, in the sagas, examples of women who did manage to rise above childbearing, cooking, knitting, spinning, weaving, raking hay. There was, after all, Aud the Deep Minded, and Guðriður beating her breast with a sword. Aud was the only woman to ever become a chieftain. However, in his book Egypt and Iceland in the Year 1874, Bayard Taylor says about saga times

“As in all well-ordered households in all time, the husband’s duty was to see to every thing out of the house, and that of the wife to have care for every thing within it; but now and then a superior, strong-minded women would so far encroach upon the husband’s province as to bring him into disgrace.”

So, there were social restrictions on ambitious females. Add that to being pregnant a good part of the time and it was pretty hard to lead forays abroad. And with Icelandic men not feeling bound by monogamy, the opportunities to get pregnant abounded.

Brown says “Before they went to Norway, Gudny and Ari had married her eldest son, Thord, then twenty-one, to his daughter, Helga. With his young wife Thord got Ari’s chieftaincy and a rich farmstead. When Ari died, the rest of his wealth went to Thord as his wife, but, as the saga says, “Thord was not lucky enough to feel for Helga the love he should have.” After four years of marriage and no children, they divorced. Thord kept the farm, most of Ari’s wealth, and the chieftain’s title. He took up with a married woman, Hrodny, the estranged wife of Bersi the Rich of Borg—the farm of his famous ancestor Egil Skallgrimsson—but though “they enjoyed a lasting love,” Thord and Hrodny didn’t marry. Instead Thord married a rich widow named Gudrun, who “brought a great deal of money with her,” the saga says. “Thord then became a great chieftain.” He and Gudrun had a son, Bodvar, who was his father’s only legal heir, and a daughter. Later in life Thord fell in love again, taking as his mistress Thora, who gave him six children, her son Sturla, born when his father was fifty, wrote the saga.”

Although people like the archbishop of Trondheim tried to explain that a Christian wedding was a sacred event that joined a couple for life in an exclusive relationship, he didn’t have much effect. Even those priests who represented Christianity ignored the rules. In the 19th Century, it was still common for men, including priests, to impregnate young women and to absolve themselves of responsibility by paying someone to declare falsely that he was the father. Halldor Laxness describes this process in detail in Paradise Reclaimed.

I didn’t know this, or maybe I did in a way because of having read some sagas but it didn’t mean much, sort of like the begats in the Bible, read but bored and ignored. Nancy Marie Brown explains what was going on and why. It stops being boring. It even becomes a bit shocking. Those saga heroes were into sex in a big way with all sorts of women, inside marriage and out. None of this takes into account all those serving girls. The only way forward for an ambitious woman was to have a relationship with a powerful man. The men took it for granted that they could have sex with many women. Of course, all women didn’t get the chance to be the wife, mistress, consort of some important man. They needed to bring with them money, connections, land. The indentured girl who was going to spend her life grinding barley wasn’t going to get to even be a mistress. She might get a baby but then she’d be pawned off to some young crofter.

Brown’s book is causing me to do a lot of thinking, not just about saga times but about Iceland during the years of emigration and the Icelandic communities in North America during and after the immigration.

I wonder if it was these myths, these sagas that gave permission to men like Björn of Leirur to behave in the way he did in Paradise Reclaimed. I know it is a novel, but it also obviously is based on what Laxness observed and Björn represents not just one man but many men for his friend the sheriff says that he is constantly busy having to deal with the problems created by men getting girls pregnant.

The pattern of the privileged man, the landowner, the well paid civil servant having the right to have sexual relations outside of marriage seems to have followed the Icelanders to North America, in spite of the fact that the church had done all it could over hundreds of years to make marriage monogamous. The Icelandic priests, for all their preaching of the value of virtue, often behaved like Björn of Leirur. They, too, paid other men to say that a child was theirs. Old saga ways prevailed.

Perhaps we are separated from the vikings by time but the story of Snorri raises the question of how separated we are from them in action.

The viking age only lasted from the 9th to the 11th century. After that it was all downhill, not just for the women but also for the men. Norway took over Iceland in 1262 and Iceland didn´t get its independence back until 1944.

Iceland´s history has been one of physical cataclysm, volcanoes, earthquakes, dreadful weather with the onset of the Little Ice Age, political repression, rampant disease and famine. However, the sagas, those stories of a time when Iceland was powerful and there was wealth, continued to be told. After Bayard Taylor visited Iceland in 1874,  he wrote of an experience with the local farmers at the Geysers,

“I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemunds Edda!” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces, and all shyness vanished. The Njil and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlusson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed. It was remarkable to see their full knowledge of Icelandic literature and their vital interest in it.”

According to Kneeland in his book, An American in Iceland, 1874, “The authority of the father, however, or the natural guardians, in case of proposed marriage, was decisive, either with or against the girl’s inclinations; a widow could not be compelled to marry a second time, nor could she marry without the consent of her father, brother, or sons. Marriage was a regular business affair and the settlement of the conditions often a shrewd bargain. If a girl married without the consent of her parents, the father cold disinherit her and her children; and the man who made her his wife, under such circumstances, was liable to be punished for abduction; this right was not always exercised. If the father were dead, the nearest male relatives became her natural guardians. Betrothal could not be extended beyond three years, and neither party could break it without punishment and disgrace. With the introduction of Christianity, marriage became a religious rite. Plurality of wives though not expressly forbidden, was never general, either in Norway or Iceland. Should a man lay violent hands upon his wife three times, she was at liberty to leave him, taking both dower and settlement; but such violence was rare, as it was looked upon as most  unmanly. Says their old law; “Every man owes the same duty to his wife that he owes to himself;” but the husband alone possessed all rights concerning the disposal of the children. As in all well-ordered households in all time, the husband’s duty was to see to every thing out of the house, and that of the wife to have care for every thing within it; but now and then a superior, strong-minded women would so far encroach upon the husband’s province as to bring him into disgrace.

Divorces were very common; mutual disinclination, the will of the husband, abuse of his wife, or the wearing by either party of garments belonging to the opposite sex, were sufficient grounds for separation. When the wife sought the divorce, she was obliged to proclaim her lawful reasons within the house, before its principal entrance, and at the public assembly. A divorce offered no impediment in the way of either party marrying again. When marriage became a religious rite, divorce was granted by the church, and never without the strongest reasons.”

When our myths support positive outcomes for our group, family, ethnic, national, they are to be heralded. I grew up with people mentioning women in the sagas. A lot of what was said was not based on fact. There weren’t armies of Amazons with their own ships raiding the Baltic coasts. Men and women were not equal. There were a few women in the sagas who obviously were exceptional but that’s the whole point, they were exceptional. They also weren’t the vast majority of women who were having babies nearly every year, spinning, weaving, knitting, cooking, milking, raking hay, living in conditions that required constant work just to survive. Nor were they the female servants or slaves. The problem was that there was no golden age for women and the myths obscured and hid the brutal reality of most women’s lives.

Brown’s description of life during the time of Snorri Sturlusson makes clear the relationship of men and women. The attitude that neither the gods, nor men need to be monogamous surfaces in various accounts as late as the 19th Century. According to English travelers like Richard Burton (1872), the number of illegitimate children in some syslas were one in three.

I love the image of the swashbuckling female Viking, standing at the prow of the longboat, sword uplifted, long hair streaming in the wind, riding the waves of the North Atlantic, heading into battle but I’m afraid it is only an image for comic books, movies and fantasy novels. Men could have sex, sail away from the outcome but women couldn’t. They had children to feed and clothe, to educate, farms to tend. That they had a few rights (if they were part of the upper class) was good. It would have been better if they’d had more but with the growing power of the church and its inherent misogyny, with the betrayal of Iceland by Snorri and Iceland becoming a vassal state, their rights became less. For centuries, Icelandic women would live in darkness and not until well after Icelandic regained its political independence would Icelandic women start moving toward undoing an unjust system.